Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Lowdham Book Festival at fifteen

Way back when the world was younger and more innocent, Jane Streeter from The Bookcase in Lowdham and Ross Bradshaw, then of Nottinghamshire County Council, met for the first time in Jane's bookshop. By the end of the meeting we'd agreed to do a dummy run event, and if that worked, we'd run a full scale book festival. It worked, and we did. Neither of us had run a book festival before, though both had organised readings and other events. We learned on the job and the festival grew - and grew and grew. In its tenth year there were sixty events, a winter themed weekend, a weekend long film festival, irregular launches and readings. We started up Lowdham Book Festival on Tour. I'll write up a fuller history sometime, but Lowdham led us in other directions too - Jane became President of the Booksellers Association, Southwell Poetry Festival developed in tandem, both of us are trustees of the East Midlands Book Award... and now Five Leaves has its own bookshop and is heavily involved in the radical bookshop revival.
In consequence - and as it should be - Jane is now the main organiser of Lowdham while I run the traditional "last Saturday", which is approaching like a train...New partnerships have been formed, such as that between the Festival and Nottingham Playhouse. We never wanted the Festival to be static, but we also wanted to keep some traditions - the last Saturday, the reading group day, the cricket night, the technician bringing out that awful yellow staff T-shirt that seemed like such a good idea fourteen years ago.
Fifteen years in literature is a long time but it still gets you. Even just hearing about Bonnie Greer at Lowdham last night (I could not attend) - one of the country's leading Black intellectuals captivating the audience in St Mary's Church in the village made me excited. And on Saturday morning, at 6.30am I'll turn up to set up the bookstalls for our book fair and be castigated, as every year, by the first arrival for my amateurish lateness but that bookseller knows that he will get exactly the spot he wants, the best one on site, as he has every year at that time in the morning. I'l looking forward to it.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Wild paddling

Spending a short break in the Lake District enabled me to engage in a little Wild Paddling, in solidarity with the Wild Swimmers who seemed all over the place. But more importantly it enabled me to visit Fred Holdsworth Bookshop in Ambleside for the first time in twenty years and Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere for the first time ever.
Fred's shop has been going for 50+ years though Fred himself retired a few years back. I'd remembered it as being more political, more alternative and more literary than it is now, but there are reasons. At one time there were 500 teacher training students in the small town, plus staff, and their presence - and those of quite a few other alternative types drove the bookshop. Nowadays the stock is orientated more towards tourists. Still a shop worth visiting - well, I was a tourist - but it feels like the last few years have been a struggle.
Holdsworth's longevity is nothing compared to that of Sam Read, which opened in 1887. The current owner has been there fourteen years and while Grasmere had the feel of a theme park, the bookshop lifted my heart a bit as their walking book display was led by Rebecca Solnit and a cohort of other important and thoughtful walking writers. There was depth there.
But like all the outposts of bookselling, the hours are long. Both shops are open seven days a week and while the weather this week has been beautiful in the Lakes, I suspect there are long periods of rain outside and ennui at the counter.
I'd definitely visit both shops again but a visit in person is better, neither have spectacular websites.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Five Leaves' next... invitation to the book launch

Going, going, gone - title update

Update on some of our titles:
The Liberation of Celia Kahn is now out of print in paperback, though the ebook is still available for the moment. Together with its companion volume, The Credit Draper, which will also fall out of print, J. David Simons' titles are passing to another publisher. This is Saraband in Glasgow. The two titles will appear from them with the third in the loose trilogy - The Land Agent. I've read the third and it is very good indeed. I'm sorry to see the books go, but they will have a great new home with Saraband and it makes sense for the three books to be available from the one source.
Less satisfying is that two of our announced titles will not appear at all. The first is Under the Surface: mining poetry. Unfortunately the editor was unable to complete the book and it has had to be abandoned. A further title, Comrade Marilyn, ran into copyright issues and has also had to be cancelled.
It's rare that we have abandoned titles after announcing them - these might be the first - but there's nothing we can do. Perhaps sometime these titles will come back to life.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Not sure if I am a radical booktrade historian, but happy to support this event


News from Nowhere, Liverpool’s unique Radical & Community Bookshop continues its 40th Birthday celebrations with a one-off

WeBe40 Radical Bookfair & Spaces of Dissent

Sunday 1st June at the Bluecoat, School Lane, Liverpool 1 from 11am to 6pm

There will be three Spaces of Dissent throughout the day:

  • Poetry as Dissent at 12noon features Steph Pike & Clare Shaw, both powerful and uncompromising wordsmiths, who have audiences laughing, crying, enraged … and often all three.

  • Radical Bookselling, Radical Times at 2pm features Ross Bradshaw, radical booktrade historian and Bob Dent, News from Nowhere’s founder, enlightening us on the way in which radical bookshops have interacted with and reflected the politics of the times.

  • Fiction as Dissent at 4pm will feature Robert Llewellyn. Robert played Kryten in Red Dwarf and was the presenter of Scrapheap Challenge, but is now also the author of an eco-utopian trilogy, “News from Gardenia” inspired by William Morris’s “News from Nowhere” from which we took our name. In addition we have Desiree Reynolds, a Black British novelist whose stunning debut novel, “Seduce”, will amuse, challenge and delight with its Caribbean setting and wonderful patois language.

We also have Subversive Children’s Storytelling sessions in the Garden at 12.30pm and 2.30pm with Andy Johnson & Jennifer Verson.

Along with Liverpool Socialist Singers at 1.30pm, Sense of Sound Singers at 3.30pm, Stan the Harp and various theatrical interventions, a great day is guaranteed for all lovers of literature, culture and freedom.
In addition, the current Bluecoat display of News from Nowhere’s archives continues throughout the day, we will have projections from our Live Reportage artist Sam Galbraith, an interactive Memories of News from Nowhere game, and our famous Bolshie Bargain Bookstall will tempt the crowds in via the front courtyard.
Expect special offers, a cornucopia of words and plenty of dissent!

The whole day is free, but (free) tickets are required from the Bluecoat for the three Spaces of Dissent sessions.

Mandy Vere says:
Central to Bold Street’s revival and a major tourist attraction with national and international visitors citing it as a crucial destination, News from Nowhere is proud to be a space of dissent in arguably the most dissenting city in the country. We will continue to assert that there is no glory ever in war, that the 99% should not be made to pay for the greed of the 1%, and will always stand firmly on the side of the marginalized and the oppressed, while celebrating the human and cultural riches of our proud city of immigrants.”

Further info: Mandy Vere, News from Nowhere Bookshop, 96 Bold St, Liverpool L1 4HY

0151 708 7270 07732 983477 mandy@newsfromnowhere.org.uk

Sunday, 11 May 2014

London Radical Bookfair - past, present and future

A few years ago three grizzled veterans of the radical book trade, Andrew Burgin (ex-Compendium, ex-Canary Press, dealer in second hand radical books), Tony Zurbrugg (Merlin Press, ex-Africa Book Centre, ex-York Community Books) and me (Ross Bradshaw, Five Leaves Publications, ex-Mushroom Bookshop) and the not-yet-but-soon-to-be grizzled Nik Gorecki of Housmans Bookshop started discussing how to stabilise or revive the remnants of the radical book trade. The discussion was inconclusive, but some time afterwards the Housmans Board (which I was then on) decided to set up what became the Alliance of Radical Booksellers. Our discussions were joined by Mandy Vere, who has been involved with News from Nowhere for the best part of forty years and other bookshops responded enthusiastically.
The ARB was formed at a meeting in Liverpool, as a light-touch organisation co-ordinated by Nik, at a day event which included a presentation on the history of radical bookselling. We also launched the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing. By this time there had been a couple of new shops opening and existing shops were reporting increased trade. Five Leaves did not yet have a bookshop but Ross from Five Leaves, Mandy and Nik formed the Trustees of Bread and Roses and the initial three years of the Award were underwritten by this firm.
David Graeber duly won the first Bread and Roses Award, presented at a social in a trade-union owned pub in London with his book on the debt crisis (published by Melville House). By the next year we were thinking of how to move things forward. It seemed obvious that with a captive group of speakers - those on the B & R shortlist - we had the core of a day event rather than simply a reception to hand over the cheque. Maybe we could add a few stalls? Six? Ten?
We'd noticed how the annual poetry book fair was developing and were aware of the longstanding, and very successful, London Anarchist Bookfair. Suddenly we were talking about a modest London Radical Bookfair, a bit like the Anarchist Bookfair but operating on a wider canvas. Andrew Burgin organised a decent room hire rate for Conway Hall and things were getting more serious. The organising group was to be Andrew, Nik and Ross. Andrew quickly found that he had to drop out as his small Left Unity project turned into a national political party of the same name. Ross had to drop out due to family issues, leaving Nik to organise the first London Radical Book Festival almost on his own, during which he realised that he could go into a zen-like trance and NOT panic about all the things that needed done... For a period it was not looking good. We were wondering whether many people would come, and, if they did, would we reach out to a wider radical community than we were used to. We did not want a radical re-enactment society. A last minute push (particularly a mass email from New Internationalist and Occupy London) brought in the people, lots of them. There were fifty stalls. Conway Hall was packed. Every meeting based on the shortlisted Bread and Roses Award was packed.
By now the Bread and Roses Award had produced an offspring, the Little Rebels Prize for the best radical children's book, organised by ARB member Letterbox Library. The winning adult book was Scattered Sand by Hsiao-Hung Pai (Verso), a book on Chinese internal-migrant labour. The first Little Rebel prize went to Sarah Garland for her graphic novel Azzi in Between (Frances Lincoln).
Looking down from the stage it was obvious the Bookfair had attracted a younger crowd, a wide range of radical people. Stalls reported good business. But it was too small. At its peak you could not get down the aisles. It was obvious there was a demand, and it was obvious we would have to move to bigger premises. The only, small, problem was an expected disagreement between some anarchists and the Socialist Workers Party.
Those bigger premises turned out to be Bishopsgate Institute, a radical library and continuing education establishment that faces into the City and backs on to Shoreditch. From our first approach, to Bishopsgate librarian Stefan Dickers, this was obviously the best choice. They had the space, they had their own mailing list and they wanted to bookend the bookfair with some radical talks and courses of their own. Perfect.
Except why stop at simply radical booksellers and publishers? Housmans had a good relationship with the Alternative Press Fair, an annual event run by artists, DIY publishers, zine producers. And there were three floors...
So now we had a big annual bookfair, a bookfair partner, links with the (younger and trendier!) Alternative Press Fair, a successful adult radical publishing prize and a new children's award. No money, no time, no staff... and while my family commitments had ceased I had a new bookshop to run on top of a publishing programme. Andrew Burgin was still off building a party. So that left Nik again,with the support of his colleagues at Housmans. At least it put the oldest radical bookshop in the UK, now well into its buspass years, at the heart of what is starting to be a thriving radical bookshop scene.
There were 130 stalls, attendance was up. Attendance was younger again. As well as the (packed) meetings about the shortlisted B & R books and a children's panel there were other events, including some aimed at the Alternative Press world, and a big event on the history of Black and Asian radical publishing and bookselling in Britain. The only, small, problem was another expected disagreement between some anarchists and the Socialist Workers Party. But that aside, Greens and alternative types happily rubbed shoulders with Marxists, anarchists with their other Trotskyist cousins, socialist historians chatted merrily to socialists who were too young to have any history. And, despite forgetting to bring the pop-up banner announcing our existence, Five Leaves Bookshop had its first London outing. All the shops did very well. I hope the publishers did too.
Bishopsgate people seemed very pleased as we spread over three floors. Nik looked Zen-like...
The winner of the Bread and Roses Award was Joe Glenton with his Soldier Box (Verso - winning for a second year). The award was accepted on his behalf by his organisation, Veterans for Peace, who reminded us that books should lead to action. Nobody would disagree. The Little Rebel prize went to After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross (OUP) which imagined a time when British people would have to seek refugee status, a book for 9-12 year olds.
So here we are. Little money, no staff, no infrastructure and a hit on our hands.
In concluding the bookfair Mandy Vere said that whilst bookselling was in crisis, the radical publishing and bookselling section was thriving and expanding. Indeed.
What next? I hope that we can return to Bishopsgate. I hope that the Alternative Press people liked the tie-up. We will aim to be repeat the whole exercise on the first Saturday after the May bank holiday next year. I hope we can pull in some funding to underwrite the prizes and the event. I hope that Nik has a day off next week and that Housmans will continue to be at the heart of this project. Small points? I'd like to see a take away brochure, like the one at the Anarchist Bookfair, though am aware of the work involved. I'd like to see the Bread and Roses and Little Rebels shortlist promoted more. I'd like to see... oh, all those things that involve more time and more money.
But when the grizzly ones had their initial discussions a few years ago we had little idea what would be the outcome. Steady as she goes.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

"We were all medium size once"

Last night I ran a bookstall at the Nottinghamshire NUM 30th anniversary commemoration of the 1984/1985 miners' strike. The shop was particularly promoting Harry Paterson's book on the strike, published by Five Leaves. We sold a bucket load, particularly after Henry Richardson, former general secretary of the Nottinghamshire NUM (sacked by the working miners) said in his speech "This is your story. Every striking miner should have a copy of the book in their house to tell your children and grandchildren what you did."
I'd felt that the Nottinghamshire story had never previously been fully told. Keith Stanley from the NUM published a short memoir of the strike, Jonathan Symcox published his grandfather's diaries, Canary Press published some books at the time - all worth reading - but no book had looked at the background, the detail and the aftermath of the strike and explained why Nottinghamshire was so important to the Government, told the full story of the 1,800 men who stuck it out to the end out of 32,000 in the Notts coalfield, the secret dealings leading to the formation of the UDM and their ultimate downfall. That was the aim of the book, and I think we have mostly succeeded. I say mostly as since the book came out people who Harry interviewed, or others in casual conversation, have told us the most astonishing personal stories of the strike year. We're proud of the book, but will perhaps publish a later edition including more of these stories - of the picket line staffed, by agreement, one day only by women where the only men who turned up were police infiltrators who'd not heard it was going to be women only; of the Manton miner who was charged with attempted murder, sacked of course, only for the charges to be dropped later; of the local "major" picket set up by six people, and only for six people, to draw police away from Orgreave (which also proved that phones were tapped as the police turned up in droves thinking it was to be a major event)... I could go on. There were so many stories.
It was an honour to be there last night with the men and women of the strike year. All of us thirty years older, and some of us thirty years wider than before - XXL T-shirts ran out quickly (hence this posting's title). Most of those present were NUM or from women's support groups from the period, but we were joined by many from the Clarion Choir and friends from the Trades Council and UNISON. It was sometimes hard to hear the speakers or the choir as people had some catching up to do. There were a fair few Scottish notes in the bookstall takings as a number of ex-Notts people had travelled back for the occasion. Nobby Lawton came back from London and managed, the night before, to get a lifetime ban from his old Blidworth Miners' Welfare when he took over the mike to celebrate his fellow strikers! I think he might have been exaggerating to say he went down fighting, still clutching the mike and singing the Red Flag... but there is still ill-feeling in the coalfields between those who supported the Tory Government and those who supported their national union. In Harry's book he analyses the voting figures in Nottinghamshire, indicating just how many miners actually voted Conservative. Of course they were thrown on the scrapheap too.
Of those who spoke, I was pleased that Margaret Nesbit from the women's group in Ollerton spoke about Liz Hollis, who killed herself after the strike. So many people from the coalfields remember Liz with love and affection. Ian Lavery MP reminded us of the beatings people took at Orgreave, but demanded a wider inquiry into the state of siege that took place in Nottinghamshire. The very youthful looking Owen Jones provided the best crack of the evening, referring to himself as looking more like a minor than a miner. Owen was given a standing ovation and, interesting, given the ethnic make up of the coalfields, got most applause in his speech when he referred to the scapegoating of migrants and the National Front-style lorry touring immigrant areas telling people to go home.
The meeting opened with a minute's silence, for Davy Jones - killed on the picket line at Ollerton - and for other NUM members who did not make it through to the 30th, and supporters of the NUM like Bob Crow and Tony Benn.
At the time of the strike my main focus had been CND. I am proud that the day we held the biggest ever Nottingham Peace Festival we shared speakers and ran buses between our event and a major NUM rally elsewhere in the city. Our causes were one. Perhaps because of that most of those I knew personally from the strike days were women who'd been involved in the peace movement - Ida Hackett from Mansfield, Joan Witham from Newark, both now dead, and Pat Paris, now living abroad.
I think it was Henry Richardson who remarked that the NUM never lost, as the Big Meeting in Durham attracts more and more people every year to celebrate the NUM and the working class communities which it created and here, in Kirkby, in the heartland of the strike-breaking miners, it is the NUM that lives, not the UDM.
The evening was very ably organised by Eric Eaton and Alan Spencer from the Notts NUM Ex and Retired Miners Assocation.
Nottingham readers might want to attend the Five Leaves Bookshop commemoration on 25th April with speakers being Seamas Milne (Guardian associate editor), Harry Paterson, Keith Stanley (NUM), Bianca Todd (Left Unity) and Joyce Sheppard (Women Against Pit Closures). Full details on www.fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/events).